Treaty 6 Nation sues Alberta government over sovereignty act

Click to play video: 'Treaty Chiefs call for Alberta, Sask.  sovereignty acts to be withdrawn'
Treaty Chiefs call for Alberta, Sask. sovereignty acts to be withdrawn
WATCH: First Nations chiefs from Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 territory in Alberta and Saskatchewan are calling for their provinces to drop proposed sovereignty legislation they say is unconstitutional and infringes on Indigenous rights. Nicole Stillger reports – Dec 7, 2022

EDITOR’S NOTE: The headline for this article was altered after the story was published to more clearly explain what legal action is being taken.

Onion Lake Cree Nation has taken legal action against Alberta over the province’s sovereignty act.

The Treaty 6 Nation, which is located about 270 kilometres east of Edmonton, announced it had filed a statement of claim against the Alberta government for the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act on Monday, arguing it breaches treaty and constitutional rights.

The sovereignty act was introduced into the legislature Nov. 29 by newly appointed Premier Danielle Smith. The Alberta legislature passed the legislation on Dec. 8.

The province has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

Read more: Indigenous leaders send strong message about sovereignty acts

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Treaty nations publicly rejected the legislation on Dec. 12 on the grounds that it is “in violation of our treaties” and “contrary to Canada’s constitution.”

In a statement issued Monday, Okimaw (Chief) Lewis from Onion Lake Cree Nation said the community on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border has “no choice but to use the colonial courts to defend our treaty rights and sovereign jurisdiction as Alberta has passed this law without any consultation from our nation.”

“In fact, there is no evidence of consultation in the debates, Hansards or elsewhere, that Alberta sought any input from Indigenous peoples and treaty nations.”

None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been tested in court.

Smith has said her government reached out to First Nations to hear their concerns.

Read more: Smith’s comments comparing Ottawa’s treatment of Alberta to Indigenous experience prompts criticism

“We don’t comment on ongoing litigation. The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is constitutional and does not interfere (with) or undermine Indigenous and treaty rights,” read a statement from the premier’s office Monday afternoon.

During the last legislative session, Smith said she believes Alberta’s fight with Ottawa has similarities to Indigenous groups’ relationships with the federal government over the years.

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Click to play video: 'Danielle Smith compares Ottawa’s treatment of Alberta to struggles of First Nations'
Danielle Smith compares Ottawa’s treatment of Alberta to struggles of First Nations

Her comment faced criticism from some who questioned her understanding of the history of Canada and Indigenous people.

Read more: ‘When all else fails, we will blockade’: FSIN denounces Saskatchewan First Act

While the premier has said she does not believe the legislation infringes on Indigenous rights, the Onion Lake Cree Nation said it believes the policy infringes on the rights of treaty nation people “to pursue their traditional ceremonies, associations and avocations (such as hunting, fishing and trapping), through the effective derogation of the (nation’s) sovereignty and jurisdiction.”

The nation also claimed it takes away from promises made in the treaty, and “negates the guarantees of livelihood and freedom that the treaty was made to protect, by wresting control of all treaty rights and the treaty relationship from the Crown in right of Canada to the lieutenant governor in council of Alberta.”

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Opposition justice critic Irfan Sabir said the United Conservative government has ignored warnings from First Nations leaders.

“It’s an avoidable setback for reconciliation and a blow to economic certainty,” he said in a news release.

The sovereignty act was introduced by Smith as a way for her government to push back whenever it believes the federal government has overreached into provincial jurisdiction and does something it believes harms Alberta’s interests.

Matthew Wildcat, an assistant professor of political science and native studies at the University of Alberta, said he had expected the sovereignty act would receive a legal response from Indigenous people.

“And it came quite swiftly,” he said, adding that he has noted there appears to be “overwhelming unity” among First Nations in terms of being concerned by the legislation.

“You think of something like resource development, there’s quite a broad spectrum of Indigenous responses and interaction with that. But on this, it’s just flatly across the board, ‘Bill 1 undermines treaty rights.'”

Wildcat, a member of Ermineskin Cree Nation, said in some ways he is not surprised it was Onion Lake Cree Nation who mounted the legal challenge.

“(That nation is in) a very good position to do this,” he said.

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“They’re very staunch defenders of treaty rights, they have a great legal team — they have the ability to advance this claim.”

Wildcat said that to him it appears the UCP government did not consider Indigenous or treaty rights “at all” when it drafted the sovereignty legislation and noted that such a policy needs to consider how reserves factor into it.

Wildcat noted that while, legally, status Indians and reserve land are under Ottawa’s jurisdiction, “you have things like health care or education that are reserved to the province.

“But then of course for Indigenous peoples to provide those things on reserve, there has to be some sort of jurisdictional back and forth going on… A lot of Canada is inter-jurisdictional in terms of how we have to figure these things out, especially when it comes to Indigenous peoples,” he said.

“The Alberta government should take seriously the ability of Indigenous peoples to… put a stop to provincial ambitions of sovereignty.”

Treaty 6 Chiefs responded to Onion Lake’s legal action, saying “the Confederacy of Treaty 6 supports our relatives in Onion Lake and their steps to take court action against Alberta. The Sovereignty Act puts our Treaty and inherent rights at risk. The Confederacy of Treaty Six is still weighing our options for future action.”

Saskatchewan has a sovereignty bill before its legislature — Bill 88 — that would also affect Onion Lake Cree Nation.

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“The government of Saskatchewan still has an opportunity to withdraw Bill 88 and hear from us,” Lewis said in a news release.

–With files from Phil Heidenreich, Global News, and Angela Amato, The Canadian Press

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